Years ago I asked a renowned physician to endorse my book about depression. He told me that he stopped writing endorsements for books because in order to put his stamp of approval on a product, he would need to read it from cover to cover, and he just didn’t have time to do that.
His response made me think about my own integrity, because I had made a habit of endorsing books that I quickly skimmed over. He made me consider all the ways I cave in to popular opinion and what steps I need to take to be less porous.
Integrity can be defined several ways, but I think of it as being the same person in different environments, keeping your voice steady no matter who you are talking to. Integrity involves being a grounded individual whose identity comes from a solid source, not shifting with external circumstances. It sounds easy enough, but for a stage-four people pleaser pulling it off can be harder than giving a public address, swimming with snakes, or going back to high school. Your instinct is to tweak your statements in order to earn approval, ignoring the voice telling you to be sincere.
To be a person of faith requires consistency. It’s not one of the cardinal virtues, but is implicit in many of Jesus’ teachings and in the sacred texts of all monotheistic faiths: you can’t serve two masters. That means tolerating the anxiety of anticipating the friction that is inevitable with consistency – because you are always going to go up against differing opinions – but also having the courage to follow through with your convictions, even if they are not popular or mainstream.
In my chaplain training, I struggled intensely with how to be open to all faiths while honoring my own tradition. As an interfaith minister, I had to meet people where they were without losing my authenticity. One afternoon after a zoom call that felt a bit like the Inquisition, I sat on the floor crying – questioning the beliefs I had clung to for 50 years. Then I spent two hours composing my own theology – what I believed and why, and how I could hang on to that theology while engaging with persons with very different belief systems. I sketched the subtle line in the sand where I would not step over.
Drafting and articulating those boundaries was a critical exercise in becoming a person of integrity. It was not easy, as it involved its share of friction and disapproval, which is especially distressing to a people-pleaser. But it also felt freeing, because it was the start of owning my own beliefs and not apologizing for them.
Integrity is a theme that surfaces not only in my ministry as a chaplain, but also as I navigate my health. Too many times I have been talked into a treatment that I did not feel comfortable with only to suffer through the consequences. Like the theology I drafted to define my beliefs, I also composed a health plan that lists the treatments that I am open to and those that I will never do again. It was important for me to document my wisdom based on years of trial and error — pulling from a combination of different models of medicine available today.
As I try to live as a person of integrity, I am becoming increasingly aware of that peculiar knot in my stomach that signals that something has the potential of corroding my character or taking me off course. It can be a small thing – a white lie that I need to clarify – or a big thing: a confrontation with a loved one that I really want to put off but know I can’t. It can be saying no to an ownership of something that doesn’t feel authentic or resisting the temptation to participate in gossip about someone I respect.
I find integrity to be one of the hardest challenges of living a life of faith. For the most part, it involves discomfort – the risk of standing out, of being rejected, of being ridiculed. Often you are told that you are overthinking something or being rigid or being overly sensitive. Maybe there is some truth to that, but having integrity usually isn’t popular because it’s a bit of a kill joy. It is infectious in that it makes people aware of their own habits – much like the physician’s comment did to me. Before he said no, I had no guilty conscience about endorsing books I hadn’t read. I didn’t realize I was lacking some serious backbone.
Living with integrity involves the second part of the serenity prayer: “the courage to change the things I can.” Without it there is a strong temptation to become complacent – to stop fighting for what you believe in, and to let the people around you define your beliefs. In order to be a person of consistency and integrity, you are always moving in the direction of Truth. You are continuously planting roots and filling in the spaces of your porous being, so that when the wind blows, you can stand strong.